Empowering beginner gardeners

For many years Lily White and Ami Kennedy of the Germinate Collective have worked with adults and children, teaching gardening skills and empowering people to become successful organic food growers.  

Here they tell their story to Philippa Jamieson, and share an extract from their new resource, The Germinate Workbook, designed for learner gardeners, teachers and facilitators.  

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How did you first get into gardening? 

Lily White: I was part of the Girls & Boys Agricultural Club and grew tomatoes in my dad’s glasshouse. I often stayed with my aunty who grew herbs and was a great cook.  

At my first flat in Nelson I started growing herbs. In Auckland I planted out a clay bank with wee snippets from plants gathered on my daily walks.    

The Auckland Herb Society (AHS) had a good source of unusual herbs on the trading table. I was inspired by Dee Pignéguy who taught us about the history of herbalists who were persecuted for three centuries.  

Easter Deans came to Auckland as a speaker at the AHS and taught us no-dig gardening. I was completely hooked! No-dig gardening made perfect sense when I was in Perth. I could easily pack the herbs and soil I had created into bags each time I moved house.   

Ami Kennedy: I have seen my mum, Ali, growing food for as long as I remember. After school I’d come home and go straight into the garden to graze on the seasonal bounty that flourished there. Lettuce remains my favourite, and I’ve recently discovered it has a calming effect. What better way to chill out after a busy day with a calming, thirst-quenching lettuce!  

After leaving home I began to realise how important the life-sustaining skill of growing food is. With a passion for eating and cooking fresh and whole foods, and a connection with ecosystems, I started studying at Lincoln University and was inspired by the Biological Husbandry Unit (BHU; Lincoln University’s organic unit).  

I developed the sense that to be healthy in mind and body I needed to grow edible plants. A nasturtium and parsley plant in a third-story window box in Germany, and helping out in a London allotment, connected me to the earth. I continue to be inspired by community gardens in Aotearoa and around the world. 

After returning to Christchurch from Europe I completed a Certificate in Organic Growing with Holger Kahl (at Christchurch Polytech) and met Lily on work experience with the Kids’ Edible Gardens Project.  

Easiest edibles: Lily and Ami’s recommendations for the easiest plants for beginner gardeners to grow.

Beans, especially
climbing varieties
Sweetcorn or popping corn

Tell us about your successes – and failures! 

Lily: Failure – parking a trailer-load of horse manure on a steep driveway in Waitakere and leaving it overnight for the rain to wash it down the driveway and fertilise the gravel road! Successes – growing anything in Perth using the no-dig garden method.   

Ami: I was very pleased with my first carrot harvest after finally embracing the patience needed to weed, water and thin the carrot patch. A recent success was my first kumara patch (2020–21 season)! 

Failure: I planted 10 climbing bean varieties from a permaculture seed swap all at once, in a three-meter square space. I built tepee structures and left the beans to do their thing. Life got busy and the next thing I discovered was a jungle of beans and collapsed tepees! The harvest was poor because of mould caused by overcrowding.  

Why do you garden organically?  

Lily: I never questioned what I heard about organics because of news about global environmental pollution. It never occurred to me to be anything other than organic for my health and wellbeing. 

Esther Deans inspired my first vege garden. John Seymour’s Complete Book of Self Sufficiency fuelled my passion of organics in my 20s.  

Ami: Learning to work with soil ecosystems is an act of gratitude for the earth. Developing connection and understanding with the earth/soil, water, air, sun and life force while growing food with others is the way I stay hopeful about the future.   

Can you share some of the joy of your work?  

Lily: Visiting children refused to eat eggs from our chooks because they weren’t from the supermarket! I realised my children’s peers didn’t know where food came from, so I started a garden at my children’s school. The children loved the garden and came voluntarily as I did, at lunchtime.  

One boy came every session. The principal came to the garden to ask him about what he was learning. He knew all the names of the plants we were growing. The principal said to me: “Did you know this boy has a special needs teacher at all times in the classroom?” He was my best gardener, always turning up and helping other children. I realised the garden was an incredible kinaesthetic learning tool.   

While working at an intermediate school a lone student came to the usual garden session looking a bit sad. The other students were at rugby. “Well,” I said, “they’re learning to get hot and sweaty and how to kick a ball, and you’re learning how to sustain yourself for the rest of your life.” A smug smile spread over her face.   

Ami: I’ve worked with primary school students who ran worm farms, grew and prepared fresh produce and showed pride in being part of positive environmental action. The smiles and chatter around self-grown meals is priceless. Once students tucked into food grown in their own garden using castings from the worm farm it really made sense to them.   

Some highlights are sharing seed-saving and gardening knowledge through the Nelson Seed Library and having bags of treasured seed handed to me by beginner gardeners. The excitement and joy people young and old have about their food plants. 


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