I hear a lot of interesting stories from people about their gardens, and the many wonderful plants they put in them, and the grand plans they have for even the smallest patch of dirt.
But when Candice Harris said to me, “The underground glasshouse is my passion project at the moment”, I fell head over heels in gardener love.
A glasshouse. Dug out of the ground. Full of edibles. That’s commitment.
Candice’s plan is to build a glasshouse measuring 30 square metres, 1.5m deep into the earth on one side and 2.5m deep on the other, with a kind of lean-to sloping roof. Inside, there will be raised beds, maybe 30cm off the ground, but Candice is not exactly sure yet about height and how many.
When we chat, it is winter and the glasshouse is very much a work in progress. The digger has just been and the pit is freshly dug. Candice is waiting for the local builder to come and talk about reinforcements along the sides and the framework before she maps it all out.
As for the soil – sandy and rocky old riverbed – “I’ll have to bring my own compost and dirt down into it to work with,” she says. “There’s going to be quite a lot of amending over the next year, I think.”
Experienced gardeners may already be familiar with glasshouses built into banks or partially underground, though they don’t seem all that common these days.
The idea makes intuitive sense to many who work with their hands in the earth – the heat stored in the ground keeps the space warm in winter but it also stays cool in summer. Essentially, this partially submerged-in-the-ground cold frame or greenhouse allows gardeners in colder climates to grow all year round.
In the social media space, gardeners who have embraced this concept celebrate the walipini – low-effort, high-return, eco-friendly and sustainably built “pit greenhouses” for year-round growing.
The idea is said to originate from South America, where it was developed with the aim to help every household grow their own food even high up in the Andes where the climate is cold and unforgiving. As such, there is absolutely no reason a walipini would not work for her, Candice reasons.
“I’m planning for this to be ready to go by spring. I might have to bring some topsoil and probably a couple of trailerloads of good compost.”
Having struggled valiantly with growing melons, she’s determined to grow “a full summer’s worth of them” in there. Peanuts too, because one of her sons asked if they could try. She also wants a miniature red velvet banana. “I could possibly try the avocado in there too… it keeps getting frosted outside.”
Also on her walipini wishlist: year-round tomatoes and capsicums. “I try to do that every year, but it’s just too cold in the glasshouse I’ve got now.”
This dedicated home gardener lives in semi-rural Clarkville near Kaiapoi, north of Christchurch. Since moving here five and a half years ago with her husband and their two sons after a lifetime of city living, Candice has thrown herself into growing food for her family.
She is aiming for a self-sufficient food forest, and charts her journey on Instagram (@nzgardener) – a visual-friendly medium which suits her interests, she explains. “I love portrait photography and when my kids were younger, I really got into that. Now, I love gardening and I love photography, so it’s perfect.”
Candice is slowly but surely transforming the two-hectare property. Right now, her vegetable patch measures 225 square metres, and she continues to plant fruit trees in and around the paddocks.
The family used to have chickens and ducks but not anymore – “Chickens are not my cup of tea, especially when they start getting into the house.” The ducks, she theorises, have likely been scared off down river by the cats. “Being 10 minutes out of town seems to make us the perfect place for people to dump their cats, so we’ve got three at the moment.”
When they first moved out here, there were also horses in the paddocks but they have been replaced by nine alpacas. “We’re not horsey people – they need such a lot of care and expense. But we still needed animals to sort the grass out, so the alpacas are glorified lawnmowers,” she says with a laugh. “They give great manure for the compost, and they’re so easycare. We can go away for short breaks and not worry about them. They’ve been so good for my garden.”
Like all wise gardeners, Candice uses whatever she has at hand. Leaves from the massive willow tree fronting her property go into the compost too.
“I didn’t know a lot about soil when I first started, thinking the bags of compost from the shops would do, but they are definitely not all made equal and making your own compost can be so easy.”
There is not much she will not grow, or at least try to grow. Candice takes great pleasure from her ever-changing garden. This season, she tried chickpea plants (aka garbanzo beans, a legume often grown in subtropical and Mediterranean climates). “And they’re sprouting! I’m interested to see what they’ll be like.”
They would love more broccoli, she says, but the brassicas take up too much room, “and I can’t seem to get the seasons right. They either bolt or they grow too slowly!”
She also loves growing potatoes and though right now the season is over, Candice has been experimenting with growing them in pots in the barn. “They are under cover, but they’re looking sad… not dead completely but well, it’s a test to see if I’d get anything. Even with kūmara, I sometimes get a small haul.”
The only crop she weighs and measures is strawberries. “That’s the only harvest I’ve kept a tally on, and we always try to top it every year. I always make sure I use all the runners and I like to pamper them so we can try for more the next year. I always want to grow enough to freeze for smoothies in winter, but it’s never enough because we end up eating them fresh. This year, we got just over 26kg.”
Think of the entire endeavour as freestyle gardening – an approach available only to gardeners who never had someone to emulate or teach them what can and can’t be done in their climate and location. You want to try everything and grow everything, because you are teaching yourself as you go, and realise nature is forgiving of your mistakes. If it doesn’t work according to plan, well you’ve enjoyed the sunshine, spent time in nature and learnt a lesson.
Candice once had a career in corporate administration, but says she’d never go back to it. She reckons that job was something she fell into because she hadn’t realised that she is, in fact, a gardener.
When she had her first child 12 years ago, she started planting up her backyard just to have organic veges at hand to feed him. “It took a few years to figure it all out. I read lots of NZ Gardener magazine, borrowed books from the library, and there were lots of Googling and finding things out online. I didn’t know many people who are serious gardeners. My friends, like me, had mostly backyard gardens, so there was a lot of self-directed learning and just having the space to muck around and learn in.”
She has thoroughly enjoyed developing this aspect of her life. “When you become a mother, you lose a bit of yourself to mothering, and it’s always nice to find something that’s your own again. The garden has done that for me. I’ve enjoyed getting into it and now the kids are joining me. And more and more people are realising gardening is a handy skill.”
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Candice’s husband Richard is the director of his fifth-generation family business, Woodsman, which develops and manufactures woodburners in Christchurch.
Richard prefers to work with nature in a different way. “We have a river that runs through our property and he’s passionate about the restoration of natives and bringing wildlife back, especially the native crayfish,” Candice explains. “He doesn’t come into the garden unless there’s a building job.”