The Vegan Patch – finding Shangri-La
Our resident veganic gardener, Sarah Oliver,
looks at scaling things up with veganic grower extraordinaire, Magic Rees.
I’ve wanted to visit some larger-scale veganic growers for a while and finally got the opportunity when I met Magic Rees, head veganic grower and educator at the gardens
of Shangri-la in Northland.
To get to Shangri-La, I had to get permission to go through the breathtaking but currently closed Mangamuka Gorge, then travel down a long, winding driveway to the property, which opened onto a hidden valley of lush native bush and gardens. Along with the tropical weather of the north, I felt as if I had arrived in paradise.
Shangri-La is the New Zealand arm of Gentle World, a charitable trust in operation for 40 years with a base in Hawaii for the past 35 years. Previously a farm, Shangri-La was purchased by the trust in 1999. When I visited Magic, closure of the borders due to Covid meant most of the Shangri-La personnel were currently in Hawaii, but he was happy to show us around.
Magic has a background in growing commercially and organically, but he now runs the gardens at Shangri-La veganically, using no animal by-products:
No blood and bone, animal manures (except from one rescued horse, Isa), no slaughterhouse by-products or fish. However, this certainly has not reduced the growth and abundance of the gardens, with all animal inputs arriving freely from the diverse bird and insect life. The food they now grow is either shared in the local community or sold in local shops.
Building fertility is a challenge for all gardeners and growers and vegan gardeners will sometimes say they cut out the “middleman” by removing farmed animals from the equation. Magic does this by predominantly relying on fertility that comes directly from plants.
By using green crops, Magic explains, you are basically growing your own fertilisers. When vegetables are finished in a bed, he plants a green crop as quickly as possible to keep the soil covered.
In the past he has used lupins, which he found really good, until the pheasants discovered their love for them. Now he is using chia plants. The gardener says chia is amazing and he interplants it in the beds in summer, as it is a long-growing plant. Once it is sown it will continue into winter, when it can be dug in as a green manure crop. From his experience, Magic has found that if you can open the soil up and let the green manures do their thing it is good for the soil.
He is also a fan of making compost, so when planting heavy feeders such as cucumbers and tomatoes, he will open up a row, put in the compost, cover and plant so
the seedlings will go down and get the extra boost as they get their roots into it.
For other amendments he also uses a bit of lime when the garden needs it, but only occasionally. He has used rock dust previously but not for quite a while, he explains, as
the soil he is growing on is already very mineral rich, as it is alluvial clay silt. It’s a good example of knowing the soil you are growing in — If he were in an area where the soil is not good, he would look at doing raised beds or no dig.
Rotation planting and interplanting
Magic also uses crop rotation and says it is a more sustainable practice than growing the same crop year after year, which depletes the soil of nutriments. Rotation also reduces diseases that can build up in the soil over time.
Interplanting is another method of growing he uses at Shangri-La because it is beneficial in a number of ways. Magic says you can grow more plants per square meter and some plants benefit others by providing shelter or shade. Interplanting can also help with certain insect and disease prevention. Magic says It’s all a matter of knowing your plants and which ones will offer benefits to each other.
Cover crops in a small garden
What about if you only have a small city garden? Magic suggests cover crops again and shows me a small 2×1-metre bed he has close to the house. With a small garden he suggests breaking it up into a number of smaller areas, rotating between vegetables and cover crops. Once the cover crop is ready, he would mow or weed eat it down, cover for a bit to let it rot down and then dig it in before planting.
Managing other animals
An important part of vegan organic growing is protecting your crops from birds, insects, possums and rats by using nets and methods like tree protectors and fences.
Shangri La’s possum shields on fruit trees show true Kiwi innovation in play. At first Magic says they used corrugated iron around trunks of the fruit trees and trained the tree high, but eventually the possums figured out a way to jump up high above these iron sheathes. So, after much head scratching and experimentation, they developed an aluminium shield on the trees — as the possums can’t see the edge of the aluminium against the sky, they can’t see where to jump and so don’t even try.
From what I could see, the success of this method was certainly beginning to show with lush fruit trees. The same method has worked around their gardens using fencing with an aluminium strip.
Magic says possums are very territorial, if one is removed another one will arrive in an endless cycle, so the best solution is to just keep them out altogether.
If you would like to learn more about Gentle World and Shangri-La, head to gentleworld.org, where you can also contact Magic through the website to arrange a visit.
The articles we present in our magazine and blog have been written by many authors and are are not necessarily the views and policies of the Vegan Society.
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