How a passion for gardening grew

Sarah O’Neil, at home in her Otaua garden.

For many, country living means growing vegetables, flowers, orchards and landscaping home spaces. With National Gardening Week on October 21-28, reporter Merle Foster talked to Sarah O’Neil of Otaua, who has made a career out of her passion.

Today, Sarah O’Neil and her family live on 10 acres, as she puts it, in the middle of nowhere. “It’s beautiful,” says Sarah, who has 36 raised garden beds sprouting vegetables her family eat fresh, pickle, preserve and give away to friends, family and neighbours. She’s also written three gardening books, is a regular gardening writer, and a brand ambassador for Yates and Gardena.

Just over a decade ago, she was an Auckland city-dweller with no interest at all in gardening. While hailing from a long line of gardeners, it piqued her interest when she moved. “I wanted to grow fresh and healthy food for my family. That’s when I began gardening and it became an all-consuming passion.”

The main reason for moving was a Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis. “We decided living in the city was not going to help my health,” says Sarah, who drew a circle on a map, near Auckland.

“We wanted to buy within that circle as we thought we’d pop back to the city all the time. The interesting thing is we never really bother.”

Sarah, husband Tom and their two children first moved to three acres of swampland at Aka Aka in 2007, where they spent 10 years and Sarah’s garden and her passion for it evolved into a career.

In January 2018 they started again, on bare 10 acre block of coastal land at Otaua. Sarah moved on the condition she could set up a new garden to size she had before – and do it by the next growing season.

“It was a coastal block with kikuyu, boxthorn and gorse,” says Sarah.

While she had the budget for the new garden, the space she chose was initially a ‘carpark/storage area’ for vehicles working on the home relocation.

Sarah says an April 2018 storm, while the relocated home was up on jacks, gave them a good idea of worst-case scenario on their new land.

“Winds at Manukau Heads were recorded up to 212km/hour. The relocation company expected the house to fall in but it didn’t. It was amazing,” says Sarah.

“But we realised it was really good to have such a windy experience right at the start – because now we’ve built everything to worst-scenario.”

For example, Sarah was eyeing up a standard aluminum glass greenhouse wind-rated to 150 km/hr.

Instead, she thought invested in a geogesic biodome. “I’m glad I have it because I don’t have to worry about wind – and it’s the main feature of my garden.”

And so the project began May 2018 – and Sarah did manage, with much hard work, to get it up and running on time. A neighbour’s bulldozer cleared the kikuyu, then 36 raised beds were built.

With sandy soil not ideal, Sarah says raised garden beds were the ideal solution. “The sand is fine so it does hold moisture better than expected – but it’s not as good as swampland. So I brought six truckloads of swamp soil with me to fill the beds, which works well in combination with the sand.”

Last summer Sarah found water would leak from the beds and stain the sand for five days. “So last summer, I only needed to water my garden for nine minutes every five days.”

From seed

She also grows most produce from seed. “Seed growing can be quite daunting,” says Sarah. “But growing from seed, you get way more choice. In the shops you may find three or four varieties of tomato seedlings. In seed form there is more than 100.

“There’s more seeds in a packet – so you get more bang for your buck – and it gives you something to do early-spring until it gets warm.”

As brand ambassador for Yates and Gardena, Sarah is keen to share her gardening journey, tips, trials and tribulations. She writes a regularly published columns, which pushes her to do new things in her garden, she’s authored three gardening books and has a website tracking her journey.

Asked for her best advice, Sarah says planning a new garden or renovation before picking up the spade is crucial.

“With mine, I was able to sit down and think about what I wanted from it, and ask myself: What does it need to give me? What spacing do I require? How many plants can I fit in a square metre? Where it is to be situated? Where is the sun? That sort of thing.”

She also planned how her garden would look. “Gardens don’t need to be ugly, they can be aesthetically pleasing too. Vegetable gardens are usually utilitarian things out the back, but they can be beautiful.

And with her garden plan set up, she now just manages it. I know what my plants need, so it’s not trial and error. It’s a cohesive, well-designed system.”

Sarah also says gardens don’t need to be hard work. “I have 36 raised beds – what I learnt from my last garden is if you go from a weedy bed to a weedy bed to a weedy bed, you’re chasing your tail.

“What I did – and this can be down-scaled to smaller gardens – is divided my garden into five sections. Tending to each section once a week means weeds and maintenance don’t get overwhelming.”

Grow what you love

Another message from Sarah is grow what you love. “So many people grow things just because it’s on the list. You know, you have to have beans. I say if you don’t like them, don’t grow them.

“So it’s important to ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Is it for a bit of fun? Am I trying to supplement my budget? Am I doing this to grow the interesting things I don’t see at the supermarket? Make it fun – there’s no point in working really hard if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing.”

And while she’s discovered some people don’t like gardening, Sarah believes everyone – whether they choose to or not – should know how to put a seed in soil and get something to eat, in the same way they should know how to boil an egg.

“Kids are growing up so disconnected from nature. They don’t go outside and get dirty. And I’m finding many people trying to garden are mums trying to teach their young children where food comes from.

“But they too are finding their own way as they haven’t been taught, so there’s a disconnect – we used to learn how to garden at the knee of our grandparents or parents.

“Now generations are having to find their own way and there’s a lot of misinformation out there – so it’s about making sure not only that they know how to garden but can find good sources of information.” Follow Sarah’s gardening journey at:


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