While most may think of permaculture, and they immediately imagine sustainable agriculture, renewable energy sources and other similar aspects, how many actually think generations ahead into the future, and how permaculturalists today can affect them for the better? This is exactly what Kay Baxter and Bob Corker are doing in New Zealand, at the Koanga Institute, the largest and most comprehensive seed repository in the southern hemisphere and a permaculture landmark, educating and providing the community with resources needed to expand the ideas of sustainability as much as possible.
The institute is nothing new, though it has been getting more interest as of late. It was inspired by the heritage produce found within the more rural areas of New Zealand, where the lush greenery and bountiful harvests exist with no need for hazardous chemicals used as fertilizers and pesticides. Seeing what could be done, with a little effort, the two — Baxter and Corker — decided to save what plant life they could, preserving these beautiful, nutrient-rich and edible species for generations to come. What started out as a small seed collection in the early 1980s, sourced from local farmers following traditional practices, turned into a huge undertaking which has rapidly grown and expanded over the past several decades.
Ahead of their time, Baxter and Corker knew that, with 3% of the earth’s vegetal varieties being lost each year, and mankind-caused disasters (like Chernobyl) always lurking in the realm of possibilities, that heritage food plants would become more and more important, to our health and to our legacy. With the health of the earth’s soil in jeopardy, so in turn did the health of our plants become questionable, the same plants that mankind would be taking in for nutrients, only to find very little.
In the late 1990s, a trust was formalized for the institute and, today, the Koanga Institute is home to more than 800 organic, separate cultivars. More than four-fifths of these are New Zealand-specific. These are a mix of both vegetables and fruits, with the largest collection of New Zealand heritage vegetable seeds in the country found there, plus more than 400 varieties of fruit trees and berries that are found within the region.
However, the institute is so much more than just a simple seed collection. It is also a huge educational resource for those interested in learning about permaculture, sustainability and the world as a whole, as well as our place in it. Individuals visit from all over the globe, whether they’re just curious plant-lovers, or what’s now become known as seed-savers.
In the spirit of permaculture, the institute has also undertaken a 150-person sustainable village, with its own self-sufficient economy set among the area’s rural lands, close enough to the institute to provide the residents with working opportunities, and the institute with needed resources and partnerships. The village helps to research regenerative land usage and community development as well.
Currently, the institute hosts a variety of workshops and classes, perfect for the aspiring permaculturalist, as well as those who are interested in just a simple tour of the institute itself. Guided tours include an overview of the institute’s work, a walk around the gardens and a look at the research projects, all before afternoon tea. There are also a large amount of educational resources on the institute’s website, whether you’re looking to learn more about growing your own nutrient-dense foods, or you’re even interested in beekeeping.
Apprentices and interns also come from around the world, to stay months at a time to learn permaculture and urban gardening, and then to take those skills back to their own homes. The institute certainly knows a thing or two about urban gardening — one of their projects has been to coax a year’s worth of a family’s nutrition out of 200 square meters. The students who go through the various workshops and apprenticeships available are often heralded for the amazing work they’re able to in turn go to their own homes and accomplish.
There’s no need to pack up your bags and move to New Zealand to get involved with the Koanga Institute, though. Memberships are offered to help you begin your own seed collection, as you have access to heritage seeds that may be more difficult to find within the normal realm of gardening, so you can begin the natural cycle of planting and harvesting in your own neck of the woods, without the need to attend a series of classes or workshops.
In fact, the institute is always looking for new members, as the membership fees collected are absolutely crucial to maintaining the work that goes on there, and for pushing the word about the amazing work they’re doing.
“We’ve had our collection of seeds for about 30 years and heritage fruit trees and heritage seeds, and so what’s been a struggle for us to keep the thing going, we put it into a charitable trust…because we figured that might help us get some more funds, but it didn’t really do that, and the cost of maintaining the collection — the collection’s gotten bigger as time’s gone on — the cost of maintaining the collection has been covered by our members and getting other business opportunities going, so we sell seeds and we sell educational services, things like that,” says Corker.
Just getting the idea of seed saving into the normal stream of conscious has been a struggle for the group, as it’s often not a concern that most are rallying around.
However, Baxter did recently receive a new platform to share her story through her recognition as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for her efforts in the realm of conservation and sustainability. Hopefully, it becomes possible for Baxter and the institute to use this honor to bring more attention to their work, so that younger generations continue to show interest and are able to take over the project for their own descendants.
To connect with Bob and Kay, please visit- https://www.koanga.org.nz/
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/KoangaInstitute/