Welcome Rocks Gardens owes its existence to a VERY lucky break: “If I hadn’t stopped here, a day later I’d have been locked down in a Queenstown hostel for six weeks.”
Have you ever noticed how, sometimes, split-second decisions have far-reaching consequences? Tiny choices can lead to life-changing events — and you never know when the Fates are spinning their threads.
Welcome Rock Trail owners, Tom and Katie O’Brien, needed a WOOOFer to clear some firewood. And when Brendan Lopez applied, he never dreamed that he’d end up running a market garden south of Queenstown.
I mean, there wasn’t even a hint of an idea of market gardening in Garston at the time.
Yet, two years later, he’s at the helm of Welcome Rock Gardens, a thriving supplier of fresh, organic vegetables in Queenstown and beyond.
Locking Down in Garston
When Brendan travelled ‘Down Under’ in 2019, he had cycling, not gardening, on his mind. Specifically, he aimed to cycle around the country on New Zealand’s 22 “Great Rides.”
By 2020, he’d finished the North Island trails and started travelling south.
Every now and then, Brendan took a break from cycling, and after he finished the Around the Mountains trail, he figured it would be fun to do some farm work for a week.
Two days later, New Zealand went into a level 4 Covid lockdown. Tourists were scrambling to find shelter up and down the country.
And Brendan was thanking his lucky stars that he’d landed in a farm bubble in Garston instead of hunkering down in a small room somewhere in Queenstown.
“I got to know Tom and Katie and their family really well, over the next eight weeks. We talked about the market gardening I had done in the States and about the opportunities for gardening here. I did some research and discovered a big gap in the Queenstown area. So, with my background and ample land we decided it was worth a go.”
That background included a university in Iowa and a pre-law degree in political science and Spanish. Not the first qualifications you’d pick for a gardener.
From pre-law to jack-of-all-trades
When Brendan started college in Iowa, he was all set to follow his older sister into a career as a lawyer. Then, during his studies, he got the chance to work in both the law library and a hardware store. At the same time, he noticed how his sister spent most of her days inside.
Suddenly, lawyering didn’t seem much fun to Brendan, and he realised that “being in an office all day, every day was not what I wanted to do.”
So after he graduated, Brendan kept working at that small, independent hardware store.
“It was great. The other people that worked there were retired electricians, plumbers — I really got to learn a lot. It was a great experience. So, I continued on and off working at hardware stores and things like that, just doing small engine repair and handyman work.”
That handyman experience came in real handy when Brendan set up Welcome Rock Gardens in Garston. Because it turns out that there’s more to running a market garden than just growing plants.
Like setting up a gravity-fed irrigation system, for example. When you’re growing vegetables so intensively, you need plenty of water.
Brendan hooked into the farm water tanks up on the hill above the gardens and set up a pipe and sprinkler system, aiming to use the least amount of piping possible.
“I water the garden in four zones, early in the morning so the water can absorb into the soil without evaporating. The first one goes on at 2:00 a.m. It works really well with just the gravity feed from the tanks. It’s got enough pressure to do good coverage when you water one zone at a time.”
Market Gardening Experience
Brendan learned the basics of market gardening on an organic garden back in Iowa.
“We sold to markets and restaurants and delivered home veggies. But the veggie boxes over there use a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) system with subscriptions at the beginning of the season. All your members pay the upfront fee for 21 weeks and then every week they get a box. It’s just a great way to support local growers and give them that initial money they need at the beginning of the season.”
Here in New Zealand, Brendan’s delivery customers order their boxes week by week, so the money trickles in during the season. On the plus side, it’s more affordable for some customers to pay weekly, and it takes the stress out of having to fill all those guaranteed CSA orders. “Because,” says Brendan, “in an organic growing system, you just never know what is going to happen.”
Setting up Welcome Rock Gardens: the “no dig” method
In early spring 2020, a neighbouring farmer drove his tractor up and down the paddock behind the O’Brien’s cottage, removing the grassy sod and breaking up the soil. That’s the only time Brendan’s used a tractor on his garden beds. From then on, he’s taken a no-dig, spray-free approach.
“Any time you’re tilling, you know you’re damaging worms and other, smaller, microbiology. Mixing up all the mycorrhizal fungi that live around the roots and all the beneficial microbiology that helps the plants uptake nutrients.”
In fact, if you till the soil, Brendan says, you’ll get soil compaction somewhere in the dig.
“You get a nice, beautiful kind of fluffy till on the top. But wherever the tiller stops, you’re just forming a hard pan underneath that which definitely can affect roots and things like carrots. When they don’t have that deep, loose soil, that’s when they’ll start to fork. So, we actually leave the old roots in and then just plant directly over that. It keeps the mycorrhizal fungi happy and adds to the overall soil health.”
How to garden without digging soil
Winter: rest and rejuvenate
In winter, the soil beds down with a cover crop mixture of vetch, rye and field peas. These plants send out deep roots, which help to prevent soil compaction and add organic matter. The peas have the added bonus of fixing nitrogen into the soil.
Once the plants have grown, Brendan cuts the crop close to the ground, leaving the roots in the soil. Then he covers the beds with silage tarps to stop regrowth and encourage the plants to break down.
Spring is compost and feeding time in the garden
Come spring, Brendan gets 30 cubic metres of weed-free compost from TNZ in Invercargill delivered to a shed on the farm. Then he carts four hundred litres of compost to every bed before he plants it out.
“I add organic blood and bone meal as a basic fertiliser and work that in with a little battery-powered tiller that just turns over the top five centimetres. Most of the soil life is beneath that so it doesn’t get damaged. Anything that needs more nutrition, like garlic and courgettes, I feed every two weeks with organic fish emulsion and seaweed.”
Summer: Here come the pests
Like most gardeners, Brendan battles the plants and animals he’d rather not see invading his patch.
“I have this vision of an immaculate garden that’s completely weed free, but that’s just not possible.”
The compost helps suppress some weeds, but Brendan still spends more time than he’d like each day going through a few rows and pulling them out. If the plants are healthy, they’ll win out over the weeds. However, salad greens take priority in Brendan’s weed battle so he can cut them without having to sort out a bunch of weeds. After all, no one wants to find a bunch of weeds in their mesclun mix.
Slugs and white butterflies love the garden too, of course, but rather than spray, Brendan says his pest and disease control strategy focuses on prevention rather than intervention.
“Any brassicas that I plant after the white butterflies show up are covered with insect mesh, but I’m still trying to figure out the best way to deal with slugs.”
Ah, those slugs! Brendan’s tried beer traps with moderate success. He’s thought about eggshells and coffee grounds, but the nightly irrigation spray quickly washes those away. So far, the most successful strategy involves laying down chunks of firewood in the walkways at night. The slugs think they’ve found a wonderful new home, and, come morning, it’s easy to gather them all up.
Believe it or not, spreadsheets are the key to success
When you’re growing on just one thousand square metres of garden, you really have to maximise every cm of growing space. The logistics are pretty mind-blowing.
“That’s what I do over the winter is I just stare at spreadsheets,”
Brendan’s got spreadsheets for who, what, when and how Welcome Rock Gardens will function all year.
The spreadsheets cover:
- What needs to be seeded in the nursery,
- when it’s going to be transplanted,
- what bed it’s heading to
- and what’s the follow-on crop.
“I’ve got it all broken down weekly,” says Brendan. “Same with direct seeding, which beds need to be seeded when. And you know, you kind of learn (as you go.) Like with the mesclun mix, Over summer, it needs to be every two weeks. It can be every three weeks at the beginning of the season, but it changes depending on how it matures.”
“So really, the two things that are most important to the whole garden are soil health and spreadsheets.”
Welcome Rock Gardens’ customers can definitely give a thumbs up to the results of Brendan’s planning and hard work.
In 2020 he focussed on producing plenty of salad greens, and in 2021 he’s expanded the vegetable repertoire well beyond salads.
This year’s garden includes:
- White turnips
- Spring onions
- Mustards, leafy lettuces and baby kale for the mesclun mix
Interplanting vegetables makes the most of a small space
“I try to do a lot of interplanting to get as much out of one bed as possible. And in as short a time,” Brendan explains.
“So, for example, if there are three rows of carrots, I’d plant two rows of radishes in between them. The carrots take quite a while to germinate, but the radishes are fast. So when the carrots finally come up and need the sun, the radishes are harvested and gone. I plant spring onions with lettuce and spinach between the rows of beans.”
“There’s always something going on and it just continues the photosynthesis process and increases the soil health, as well as maximising the space.”
Brendan’s tips for veggie growers
- There are some really excellent market gardening resources on the internet. “Pakaraka Permaculture” is an organic farm on the Coromandel – they’ve put out a fantastic book which is really informative.
- Organic matter is critical. It’s definitely worth the initial investment of having good, weed-free healthy compost.
- Focus on soil health first. Try to disturb the soil as little as possible to maintain the structure and the microbes.
- Source good quality seedlings, or grow your own, so you know that you’re putting healthy plants into the ground. Plant your seed in trays of seed raising mix and keep it moist in a dark, humid environment. Put them into the sunlight as soon as the seedlings poke through because if you leave them in there too long, they start to get stringy, trying to find the sunlight.
- Transplant veggies like pumpkin and courgettes into individual punnets to develop a strong root structure before they go into the ground.
- Choose the correct time to transplant and ensure that the plants are ready to go in the ground.
- We all make mistakes from time to time. (Brendan confesses that he was too impatient with his courgettes. “I really wanted to get them in the ground, but it was too soon, and they’re suffering from transplant shock.”)
- Nourish heavy feeders like garlic, pumpkin and courgettes with fish emulsion and organic seaweed every two weeks.
- Beetroot needs boron to form a good bulb. If your soil is low in boron, add a sprinkle of borax. Four or five tablespoons over a whole bed is plenty to give them an extra boost.
Welcome Rock Gardens Delivery/Market Schedule
Wednesday – harvest and pack
Thursday deliveries – wholesale orders and veggie boxes
Friday – harvest for the Remarkables Farmers Market
Saturday – Welcome Rock Gardens stall at the market (then home to harvest for Sunday)
Sunday – Another stall, this time at the Arrowtown Farmers Market.
“Whatever you get from Welcome Rock Gardens will have been harvested within 24 hours of you getting it, for maximum freshness and maximum shelf life.”
Local businesses support each other
When you’re small and local it pays to look out for each other, and that’s certainly what happens in Garston.
Kylie, from The Coffee Bomb, loves being able to use Welcome Rock salad veggies in their burgers.
Right next door are The Stables and The Hunny Shop – it’s hard to stop in Garston without visiting all three establishments.
And why buy your coffee from abroad when you can get it locally? The Coffee Bomb gets all its coffee from ROAR Coffee, just half an hour down the road in Lumsden.
Finally, customers love getting eggs with their vegetables but the Welcome Rock hens don’t lay enough to go around. So, on market days Brendan teams up with Amanda from Farmyard Eggs in Athol (just south of Garston) to get trays of delicious eggs to market-goers.