Get to know - Kelmarna Gardens

Get to know - Kelmarna Gardens


Situated on 1.7 hectares of council-owned land, as part of Hukanui Reserve, Kelmarna is a busy, small farm, largely tucked away behind rows of houses on Hukanui Crescent and Kelmarna Avenue.

Kelmarna use regenerative organic methods to build the health of their soil, water, and biodiversity, while sequestering carbon into their soils and growing nutrient-dense food for the community.

Recently we were lucky enough to attend a special Paddock Picnic they held to thank their crowdfunding campaign supporters. At the event we meet with General Manager, Sarah McFadden to learn about the gardens, workshops, volunteering and more…

Hey Sarah, thanks for chatting with me. Firstly can you please tell our readers about Kelmarna Gardens and how it all started?

Started in 1981 by Paul Lagerstedt, based on his vision for an urban demonstration garden. 

He negotiated some land from the council, did some initial fundraising, and gathered a group of people to help out - and Kelmarna was born.  

But for most of its life as a community garden, it was managed by the Framework Trust, as a community garden for therapeutic purposes, supporting people facing struggles with their mental health, and those with intellectual disabilities. 

In 2015 the Framework Trust decided to stop managing the site, and so a new board of trustees was established to lead and govern the organisation. Since then we’ve been gradually expanding the scope of Kelmarna’s mahi into what we know it as now.

A key part of our work is still offering the therapeutic programme, but we’re also working more broadly to champion and demonstrate a regenerative local food system that supports climate change mitigation, urban resilience and community wellbeing. 

We have the privilege of guardianship of approximately 1.7 hectares in Ponsonby, and we tend a productive market garden, grow fruit and other edibles in our food forest, compost food scraps from businesses and households in our local community, and regeneratively farm sheep and chickens within a silvopasture system. 

A key part of our work is education and awareness raising. So alongside the practical farming operations we run workshops, events, therapeutic gardening support, volunteer programmes, educational school visits and other community-building programmes for Aucklanders from our local community (Waitematā region), and beyond to access.

Can you please describe your gardens to people who may not be in Tāmaki Makaurau to visit it?

Part of the design is a bit like a kitchen garden, with many small beds around the central buildings, planted with an array of veggies, herbs and flowers. We also have a food forest with fruit trees, perennial herbs, and companion plants, as well as annual crops like pumpkins and potatoes.

There are several paddocks around our core gardens, which have always been part of our site, and mostly used for grazing livestock, but we haven’t always had the time to give them a lot of love to reach their full potential.

But we’re currently part-way through implementing big plans for development of our paddocks…

- we’ve almost doubled our vegetable production by establishing a new 600m2 Market Garden space

- we’ve planted 300+ trees, including fruit trees, natives, and support species

- we’re integrating our sheep with these trees in a silvopasture grazing system

- we’ve introduced a rotating flock of 30 pastured layer hens with mobile chicken coops and have plans to add more hens over the next two years. 

Ultimately we’re trying to demonstrate diverse models of regenerative agriculture, produce an abundance of food, create meaningful jobs, train future farmers, and heaps more good stuff.

What is your role in the gardens? 

I’m the General Manager here, it’s a relatively new role for me, and for the organisation. It’s one that involves wearing a lot of different hats! As is often the case in small organisations. I’ve been working in the sustainable food sector for more than 10 years both in NZ and overseas, and mostly in small, charitable organisations, so I have lots of relevant and similar experience to apply at Kelmarna. 

I’m from Ōtautahi originally, and moved up to Tāmaki Makaurau for this job. I’m loving the warmer climate that permits us to grow bananas and avocados and lots of other wonderful fruits! It feels so different to what is possible in the south island in that regard.

We’re big composters here at decent. What are some useful tips you can give our readers about composting?

Balance your brown and green material input: Greens are fresh, moist, nitrogen-rich plant materials - think fresh leaves, prunings, grass clippings, vegetable & fruit scraps, coffee grounds etc. Whereas browns are dry, carbon-rich plant materials - think autumn leaves, straw, wood chips, twigs, paper, etc. 

Keep some moisture in the pile: Moisture is important to create the ideal conditions for the helpful organisms to thrive. Be careful not to let it get too soggy though. A good test is to squeeze your compost and 2-3 drops of water coming out is the ideal amount of moisture. Generally we don't add water in winter but need to add a bit in summer. 

Mix your materials: Mixing adds air into your pile, helping spread out the moisture, speed up the composting process and prevents the pile going anaerobic. It's also a good way to get the brown and green inputs to blend well together, which helps reduce potential odours from the pile. 

Chop everything into smaller pieces: Though this can feel like a bit of an effort, it really makes a big difference to the speed that your compost will mature. It also makes it easier to do the mixing mentioned above, so it's a win-win really, with the effort paying off in the long run. 

Let your compost sit and mature: It's important to not use your compost too soon otherwise it can do more damage than good to your plants. Once your compost is a dark chocolate colour leave it on the ground covered for another couple of months. To test if your compost is ready to use, pop a sample in a zip lock bag overnight and then give it a whiff. If it smells like ammonia then don't use your compost for another month or so. If it smells like a forest floor then you're good to go! 

What does an average day in the life of a volunteer look like?

We run open volunteer days on Thursday and Saturday mornings, so that is when most people come and volunteer. The show starts at 9am, and we delegate out various tasks in the garden. It could be harvesting, planting out, seed sowing, weeding, turning compost or helping make lunch. There are always an abundance of tasks we need help with! After the mornings work we break for a communal lunch - sitting down together to share a cooked meal. Then after lunch we all pitch in to do the washing up, and volunteers make their way home again.

We hear from many volunteers that the team nature of volunteering at Kelmarna, and daily communal lunches are a really important part of the experience and provide opportunities for connection and friendships to blossom, including for many who may not otherwise have large social networks.

Volunteering at Kelmarna is a great way to gain practical experience with organic gardening and farm management, meet new people, and make a positive impact for your community. 

I can see you offer composting workshops, how cool. Can you tell us more about this and how our local readers can get involved?

Our Workshop Programme hosts sessions on loads of different sustainable living topics. From gardening and food growing, to composting, cooking and preserving and much more!

We’ve almost wrapped up our workshop programme for 2022, but there are lots of great topics in the works for 2023, so the best way for people to stay informed is to 

sign up to our monthly e-newsletter, or follow us on Facebook and Instagram.

What have been some of your most memorable highlights since working at Kelmarna Gardens?

Oh gosh, this is a hard one to pin down. 

I guess I would go for our Paddock Picnic event that we held a couple of weeks ago. This event was to celebrate and say thanks to all the people who donated to our crowdfunding campaign last year. The campaign was a major contributor to our big paddock development project, and so the event was a chance to show all that we’ve achieved since then…such as the new market garden development, our silvopasture tree lines, our new chickens and their mobile coop and more. We conducted mini-garden tours, played games and shared a picnic lunch together. It was a lovely day.

The picnic was well attended, and so it felt really encouraging to see so much of our community connected to and interested in our mahi. It’s the kind of thing that helps to validate the path we’re on, and gives us a boost of confidence knowing that the community is behind us!

Do you have any goals you’re working towards at the gardens you’re hoping to achieve?

The work we have been doing with the paddock development was part of our vision to model a better future for our food system - one that is - community-centred, human-scale, diverse, ecologically-regenerative farming for nourishment, not commodity.

There’s so much evidence now that industrial, fossil fuel-dependent monoculture farming is devastating our ecosystems, our health, and fuelling the climate crisis. 

To address these challenges we need a radical transformation of our food system, and in order to do so we need to visualise and create models that show us a different way forward. 

So at Kelmarna, this is one of our main goals. We believe we have a unique opportunity to demonstrate these models in the heart of Aotearoa’s biggest city. We wish to create an inviting and accessible space that can educate and inspire people along this path.

How can our readers best support you? 

Come and get local, organic produce in our farm shop. All produce is grown onsite and harvested fresh. As well as a range of seasonal veggies, we also have various fruits, and eggs from our chickens. All proceeds from produce sales fund our work to teach people about growing food, connect people with nature and their community, and support people through horticultural therapy.