Garden paradise: a Lord Howe Island retreat

Garden paradise: a Lord Howe Island retreat


Ian, Kathy and their young son Harry live on the island paradise of Lord Howe Island, which is actually part of NSW

They can swim in crystal clear ocean waves before breakfast, walk to work or school in five minutes and watch the sun set over the lagoon if they choose. Their home, Customs House, is surrounded by vegetable gardens and subtropical rainforest.

A trip to the big smoke means a two-hour flight to Sydney or Brisbane and all their supplies are either grown on the island or brought in by barge once a fortnight. It’s not quite Swiss Family Robinson, but to a mainlander it seems like heaven.

Life in this idyllic setting is gentle, fresh and pure, but as with all island life resourcefulness is needed — often. Each resident collects all their own water, treats their waste and soon will be required to provide at least a percentage of their own energy via solar or other means. But it’s the daily requirements for sustenance — food and water — that are most pressing.

The supply barge that arrives fortnightly with fresh food can be delayed for days in poor weather or with low tides. While locals like Ian and Kathy stockpile dried, preserved and frozen food, it’s the fresh items that are precious, especially for little Harry, who loves his vegies. So what’s the solution? Make or grow your own, of course!

Ian is the productive gardener of the family, while Kathy loves to grow flowers for colour. Her garden display is brilliant, with sunflowers and a blaze of red salvias flourishing in the sandy soil. Ian is justly proud of the vegetable garden he’s established. It was not as easy as just digging a patch, though. The island is a World Heritage-protected area, so he had to apply to the Island Board to clear some of the forest on his block in order to provide solar access to vegie gardens. This in turn allows him to grow a large proportion of the food the family enjoys. And, if clearing the forest is not enough, there’s the issue of water.

No council supply here! It’s only the water you can collect yourself and that doesn’t go far on sandy soils. Without water, Ian says, there is little hope of food production. The family have tanks collecting and storing 55,000 litres of rainwater, but long, dry spells can mean the water is used first for human consumption and indoor necessities before the garden gets a drink. Ian has ingeniously and at great expense (because of the barge fees) established a water-recycling plant in his garden. He says the replacement of the old septic tank with an Econocycle system has been effective in treating household waste water to a tertiary level. As with all home treatment systems, the resulting water is not recommended for use on leafy vegies because of potential contamination by E. coli. But Ian has rigged up the system through a reed bed of phragmites to polish the water further and grow mulch for the garden and for fruiting plants such as corn and eggplants.

As the marine park manager, Ian realises how important it is to keep the environment healthy. He says his garden is grown on organic principles with homemade fertility. The soil in his northern island garden is sandy, so to establish the vegies he hauled loads of rich volcanic soil from a friend’s farm at the southern end near Mt Lidgebird and Mt Gower. Ian adds plenty of organic material to his soil from grass clippings and chopped Kentia palm material. Plus, he is the king of vermicomposting (worm farming) on the island. Never one to waste an opportunity or to create rubbish, Ian shows how he has converted an old water tank into a huge worm farm. It effectively deals with waste paper, cardboard and all the food scraps he can add. He collects the worm liquid and mixes it with Lord Howe Island organic cow manure for fertilising seeds and seedlings. Do root knot nematodes thrive on Lord Howe? You bet they do. Ian has committed to practising crop rotation and interplants crops with marigolds to help reduce the nematode impact. He says he finds companion plants like basil for his tomatoes and herbs between the rows or blocks of vegies also keep other pest numbers to a minimum.

I asked him what staples he grew in his patch. He told me beetroots do very well and Harry loves his homegrown beetroot juice for brekky, so that’s a year-round crop. Ian loves tomatoes and grows five types, including Roma and the productive Burkes Backyard Italian tomato. Silverbeet, lettuces, corn, cucumber, carrots and onions also flourish in his summer garden. Their small island community is close-knit and supportive and they share seeds and cuttings from their gardens to enhance the range of foods they all enjoy.

The Purple Champion beans climbing up the trellis have been a huge hit this year, producing enough beans to keep the family well fed. Kathy reveals, “There is always a handful of beans ready for picking and I can’t believe a plant can be so prolific.”

This year, Ian is entering the Island Boys competition for pumpkin growing. He’s coaxing along a selected mail-order seed. He reveals it’s getting the cream of the vermiliquid and regular fertilising. He’s already identified the chosen specimen and is tending it lovingly and protecting it from pests. Last year’s prize-winning pumpkin grew to a whopping 45 kilos. But Ian’s self sufficiency doesn’t stop at vegies. He’s growing citrus to enjoy with the fresh fish that abound and makes his own beer, Merlot and Chardonnay. The tempting aroma of fresh bread can be smelt wafting from the kitchen as Ian bakes the family bread, too. “I really want to get into more cheese-making, too,” he says “as the island cows produce magnificent milk, but Kathy has put the reins on me, saying enough is enough. I think she is happy with my dabbling so far and is not quite ready for the serious foray into cheese. Maybe next year I’ll sneak more out …”

Of course, keeping chickens goes hand in hand with growing vegies. The family had a number of local Lord Howe Island hens before converting to mainland hens. After the barge trip and settling-in period, Kathy reckons they are now “like the hen version of a young Labrador. They are always hungry”. But they lay well and little Harry loves collecting the eggs each day. When the family have too little or too much produce, the local co-op, run by volunteers, is the place to go for organic and island-grown foods. Locals with a surplus can sell through the co-op. “Nobs”, originally a Norfolk Islander and described by everyone I met as a “character”, married a local girl and now produces plenty of fresh food on his small farm. His corn and Norfolk Island pumpkins are simply divine.

I wondered what life is like for children on Lord Howe. Island living and the fabulous fresh air and freedom seem to totally agree with young Harry. He is growing up with the wondrous cycles of the ocean and enjoying a close relationship with the natural world that supports him. He’ll learn to grow his own food, to be self-sufficient and resourceful and he’ll feel safe in a place where every mischievous action will be reported back to his parents before sunset.

Written by Linda Brennan

Photos by Diane Crawford

Originally in Good Organic Gardening Volume 3 Issue 3