Kitchen Tips

Ben Warren's lush organic garden will make you want to grow your own vegetables

NADIA magazine takes a tour through the delightfully overgrown organic garden created by nutritionist Ben Warren and his wife, Lynda, where they learn how to get started on our own vege patch and why weeds are worth keeping around.

By Fiona Ralph
Ben and Lynda Warren
Ben Warren believes everyone should grow their own food – or at least some of it. The nutritionist and founder of health company BePure lives with his wife, Lynda, and their daughters, Bella and Macy, on a six-hectare (15-acre) organic permaculture farm in the Maraetotara Valley in Hawke's Bay.
Eighty percent of the food the family eat is grown on the farm. They have 130 fruit trees, including peach, apple, fig, olive, cherry, persimmon and avocado. They grow nuts, berries, wildflowers, legumes and pretty much any herb or vegetable you can imagine. They also raise cattle, sheep, chickens, bees and pigs on the property, which they've lived on for over 10 years.
Ben and Lynda planted everything in the garden themselves, tearing up a formal English garden and terracing the steep land to do so. Lynda, a Kiwi with a farming background, runs the property, putting in 20 hours in the garden each week. Ben, who is originally from the UK, gets his fix on the weekend. The pair employ a gardener for 30 hours a week and have occasional help from Wwoofers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). We grilled Ben on organic gardening techniques and asked him why growing your own produce is so important.
Ben, Lynda, Bella, Macy and DJ the pony show Nadia around their six-hectare permaculture garden.
Ben and Lynda built a terraced garden to provide easy access to vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and kale.
Why did you start growing your own food?
When I was retraining in nutrition 17 years ago, I was doing a lot of nutrient analysis. I'd always believed that we could get all the nutrients we need from eating a good diet, so when I found that people were massively deficient in huge amounts of nutrients I couldn't understand why. This led to looking at micronutrients and mineral deficiencies in the soil, and studying different ways of farming, such as the use of excess nitrogen which tends to yield larger plants that are low in nutrients. It was at that point I was like, "We've got to own a farm", so we started looking for land.
Why is organic gardening important?
The research is very clear – organic produce is a lot more nutrient-dense and that's invariably because organic farmers are using more nutrients, more seaweeds, worm teas and other ways of improving production as opposed to just using nitrogen as a fertiliser.
How can we tell if the food we are eating is nutritious?
You can taste nutrition. When you buy a peach that's in season from your local farmers' market, or pick one from a peach tree if you're lucky enough to have one, it explodes with flavour in your mouth. When you get kale or tomatoes out of your vege garden, the flavour is incredible. What you're tasting is the nutrition – the phytonutrients, polyphenols, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
Green thumbs Bella and Macy can often be found snacking in the raspberry patch, picking wildflowers or tending to the tomato and corn seedlings in the glasshouse.
Farm fresh chooks provide fresh free-range eggs.
How can people grow their own produce if they have a small section or live in an apartment?
Even if you just grow some greens. Grow some kale, silverbeet, cabbage or lettuce, so at least you've got some greens on hand, and in the morning you can grab some to go under your eggs or to put in a green smoothie. Even if you live in an apartment block, you've probably got a balcony, and if you've got a little bit of land, dig up some of the lawn and invest the time you would have spent mowing it in creating a vege garden.
Is it best to plant seeds or seedlings?
Start with plants, little organic seedlings, so they're up and going. Once you get the hang of that, you can look at seeds. Some things grow really well from seeds but you're going to have a different hit rate.
If people can't grow their own food, is it good to buy organic or from farmers' markets?
The fresher, more chemical-free the food you eat, the better. I'm a huge fan of farmers' markets, vege co-ops, market gardeners. Sometimes organic is expensive, particularly in the cities. You can ask non-organic suppliers if they've had to spray before you buy produce, too. If you can't afford organic, just buy food that's as high quality or fresh as possible.

Ben and Lynda's organic gardening tips:

  • Let your vegetables go to seed and grow flowers amongst them. The flowers bring beneficial insects and break up rows of veges, confusing pest insects. Some flowers, such as cleome and sunflowers, can be grown as 'catch' crops for green shield beetles. Plus, you can even eat some of them.
  • Try to keep soil covered. This could be by planting crops close together, allowing certain weeds such as chickweed, clover or speedwell to grow underneath and around the vegetables where appropriate, or mulching. Keeping the soil covered helps retain moisture and keeps the microbes in the soil happier.
  • Ask your local cafe for their used coffee grounds. These are a great soil conditioner and worms love them. Sprinkle them around your plants, incorporate them into your compost or feed them to your wormery.
  • Use your kitchen waste water to water plants. Especially in the summer when water is at a premium. Wash your dishes in a bowl that you can carry outside to tip over pots by the front door or toss on your vegetable patch. Make sure you use a toxin-free, biodegradable dish liquid. Your water will give extra nutrients to the garden and the detergent will deter pests.
  • Rinse any milk and yoghurt containers out over your tomato plants to ward off blight. Theoretically the microbes in the milk and yoghurt out-compete the blight on the plants.
  • Mix up the biodiversity of your garden. Use lots of different types of plants and heritage varieties throughout to confuse pests, encourage beneficial organisms in the soil and protect yourself from losses.

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