This Napier couple are helping to feed their community

Julie and Chris McLean's community garden are helping Napier locals

Julie McLean watches from a window of her Napier bungalow as a young boy on his way to school nips inside her front gate, pops an apple and an orange in each pocket, pulls a blueberry from the bush and then cycles away.

This is not daylight robbery – it’s a dream come true for Julie, 60, who together with her husband Chris, 69, and friend Chris Wells, 66, set up Lancaster Street Community Garden in the front yard of her home.

She’ll never forget Valentine’s Day 2023, when Cyclone Gabrielle ripped its way across the region. She was heartbroken at the devastation it wreaked and the distress it caused so many. Although her home wasn’t impacted by flooding, the cyclone had a permanent impact on the McLean household – but one that’s instead brought joy to a whole neighbourhood.

“We had no power, internet or telephone, but each night we invited our friend Chris Wells, who lives on his own, around to share the food from our freezer,” recalls Julie. “After dinner, we’d play cards by candlelight. We’d been talking for some time about creating a community garden on a piece of Council property. We’d made tentative moves, but things weren’t happening very fast, and we chatted about how after the cyclone, we should get the ball rolling.

Chris, Julie and their pal Chris’ goodies are flying out the backyard! “We’re really proud of what we’ve done.” Image: Eva Bradley

“I thought about it and said, ‘What’s to stop us throwing half a dozen apple bins on our front lawn as planters for everyone to share what grows in them?'”

Julie had already used this method to grow veges in the backyard and found the wooden structures made great raised gardens.

“I just thought, ‘Why not? People are struggling so much and raised gardens are unlikely to get flooded.'”

When the roads opened, Julie and friend Chris started to salvage wooden bins from ditches and fences.

“It was really hard yakka climbing over things and across ditches to haul them out,” shares retired caregiver Julie. “It was devastating seeing all the damage. I really felt like crying as we drove past places I’d known as beautiful properties that had just gone.”

They ended up with 14 bins. Next, the determined trio volunteered to collect people’s uprooted trees and branches to mulch and pack out the bottom of the boxes. Horse and donkey manure was donated by neighbours, and BioRich generously supplied compost. People donated plants and the local church gifted vouchers, which Julie and Chris used to buy seedlings and garden equipment.

“We lined the bins, because the wood’s treated, and put tubes in each one with holes in to make composting worm towers we put scraps into.”

Julie’s garden before her vege venture.

The community garden was officially opened in May last year, three months after the cyclone, and since then, has fed locals with a wide variety of vegetables, salads and fruits. People also drop off items from their own gardens to be shared.

“Some people feel uncomfortable walking onto someone’s property and taking free food,” she explains. “Some people want to give money for what they collect, but I don’t want them buying anything because we didn’t pay for anything – we just relied on what people gifted us.

“My biggest fears were that either nobody would come and take food or that so many people would come we couldn’t accommodate them all. It’s worked out well, though. It’s really nice seeing people call in and grab a handful of salad for dinner or something for lunch.”

The three founders have now started a kitchen food scraps rescue programme to gather extra fuel for the compost bins and worm towers. They’re also hoping to add a pantry to the garden so other food items can more easily be shared, including bread, which a local manufacturer donates weekly.

As well as feeding locals, the property’s also giving those in the neighbourhood opportunities to get acquainted.

“I’ve never talked to so many neighbours in my life!” says Julie, who notes she and husband Chris haven’t missed their lawn, especially since all three of their children are now grown up.

“People are making connections and the kids come past, grab an apple and have a cuddle with Chris’ beagle Daisy. It’s just lovely.”

And it’s not just the immediate neighbourhood benefiting.

“My sister-in-law brought residents from a rest home and they all came with ice creams. They went around the garden smelling herbs and seeing what was growing, and it got them talking about childhood memories of vege patches. They just loved it.

“We’re really proud of what we’ve done.”

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