Gidon Bing is an Auckland based artist whose inter-disciplinary practice walks the boundary lines between art and craft, always seamlessly merging form and function to create pieces that are both useful and beautiful. Gidon is known for working with wood, paper, metal and of course, ceramics; of which we stock a wide range at Garden Objects.
Gidon is also a keen and knowledgeable gardener! When visiting Gidon’s home studio in St Heliers to discuss pieces for the shop, Jared and Gidon often end up in his impressive garden talking for hours about his various fruit trees. The freeform nature of these chats inspired the format of this feature - “In Conversation” - where Jared & Gidon explore his garden and let the interview go wherever their conversation does.
JL: What shall we talk about… the house? Can you tell us about the garden and the house, what’s the history there?
GB: The house was built in 1947 by my Grandparents and at that time a lot of the houses around here didn’t exist; most of it was pasture land. We had uninterrupted views of Rangitoto. Some of the heritage fruit trees that are here were planted by my Grandmother, she was a keen gardener in the European style. She planted the orange, the feijoa, the giant plum and this golden delicious apple.
JL: So these fruit trees are as old as the house?
GB: Oh yeah. When we first moved in the Golden Delicious was practically dead. Now with pruning and water sprout training we have brought it back, it yields well and the fruit are amazing; probably one of the best apples I have ever eaten.
JL: Did you grow up in this house?
GB: No I didn’t grow up here, I remember bits and pieces of time spent here, but the garden was very different. The vege patch [down the bottom of the garden] has always been there but it only had about 10% of the trees. I got carried away when we first moved in, this was about 10 years ago, all the olive trees [that follow the fence line down one entire side] and all the other fruit trees were put in by us.
JL: Was it mainly edible stuff that she planted?
GB: She always had natives at the front and fruit trees at the back. It’s pretty much the same sort of layout now, except that I have jammed a lot more in! A lot of the technique was experimental, it’s sort of innovative now, but at the time the rationale for it was really greed. How much can I fit in and still get a healthy plant with really good available light, that grows together well with its companions and still gets a good yield. You can see that there is multi tiered layers around the periphery of the garden - pomegranate and guava, olives and pitangos - there is two layers, so when the one underneath gets big enough it will be pruned back, so there is space underneath, like canopies in a forest.
JL: Similar to a forest garden, with the layering?
GB: Yeah, kind of. It’s not really based on any deep gardening knowledge. I’m almost like a hoarder, but in a gardening sense. If I find a new variety then I’m like “I gotta have that, where do I put it!” So it’s more of a pathology than a passion.
JL: Did you teach yourself these skills with trial by error?
GB: I was always interested in gardening as a teenager and I worked on an organic farm for about five years off and on. I had some friends who were into organics very early on. I was never really into permaculture or the deep part of organics - mainly just the basics of understanding good soil. I ended up working on a biblical farm for 6 months when I was overseas, which normally means you don’t use machines, but this particular garden, its in an area just outside of Jerusalem which is in the area where King Solomon’s hanging gardens were supposed to have been. So it’s quite a steep mountainside, it’s all terraced by Jerusalem stone and running alongside is an aqueduct for irrigation and there’s a spring. You pull up the stone in the spring, which flows into a channel and you run along next to it, you put plods of earth or stone in next to it in the direction you want to flood each field. Kind of like what you would imagine that they do in the rice fields. This irrigates each level of the terrace, so you can plant each level according to the season. For example planting mustard greens on the top, and you’re chucking all your compost and your silage over onto the next level so it feeds the soil there. A lot of those techniques - the irrigation, fertilisation and soil health, the pruning and the grafting - a lot of it is the same that they were doing thousands of years ago. Some of the olive stock and the grape stock there is at least four or five hundred years old.
Working there I had free accommodation - a little Arab stone house; I got to ride a horse. For a 17 year old kid it was paradise, all I needed was my beer and cigarette money and I was happy. I got to learn a little bit about building stone terraces, and agriculture, a little bit about pruning; there was no textbook knowledge. The main guy I worked with only spoke a little English and I only spoke a little Hebrew, so our relationship consisted of maybe 20 words, a whole lot of grunting and sharing American cigarettes. I would watch him working, then he would watch me, and every time I did something wrong he would give me a whack, so I learnt pretty quick. There were a lot of things I learnt just from watching him.
JL: So that was your apprenticeship really.
GB: Yes. I learnt more conventional gardening stuff from when issues arose. I’d never had to deal with pests and diseases, until I had them in my own garden.
JL: Are you aiming for the canopy shape with your fruit trees in this main area of the garden?
GB: Yes, although it’s based on a couple of assumptions because I’ve never seen it done like this before. One is that the branches are going to be strong enough to carry the fruit yield without breaking too much.
Above: Gidon trains his young fruit trees to grow upwards then out by removing branches from below the canopy, eventually creating a tree with a tall, branchless trunk with ample light to support more plant life underneath.
JL: It creates a beautiful shade tree.
GB: Yeah the idea is to keep all the real estate, so we can still use it as a garden, but to have the benefit of having a lot of variety. I have done a bit of companion planting, I have three varieties of mulberry that I have planted in one hole together. Eventually there will be a single canopy, three different trees, three different yields. They fruit at slightly different times, so you get a bigger, staggered spread of fruit. Mulberry have about 3-5 weeks of fruiting and then they all drop, you can't eat them fast enough! So instead of one big canopy that drops at the same time, we have a longer fruiting season, and a greater variety in the same space.
JL: It’s great, it’s like an urban orchard.
GB: Some stuff is pretty experimental. I’ve got pomelo, which is a giant citrus, which has been grown on dwarf root stock, which intentionally keeps the tree small. They have been in the ground 4 years and have never yielded, and I suspect they won’t ever fruit.
Above: Gidon's daughter's apple tree that has three varieties of apples - Golden Delicious, Gala and Granny Smith - grafted onto one tree.
JL: How much time would say you spend weeding?
GB: Not much. All the trees are mulched and we are quite efficient. We do a compost dump, so all the soft leaf mass and all the compost from the house, everything that breaks down in one season goes into one big pile. Every Spring we distribute that around all the fruit trees and vegetable garden. Local arborists deliver free mulch - they do it all around the city, they just need to dump it somewhere. So if you talk to them nicely and ask for a quality mulch - no chippings, fungus spores or seed - sometimes we get 5 or 6 cubic metres, a huge pile. It takes me weeks to distribute it around the garden, a couple of wheelbarrows a day. We dump it and when we walk past we just push it around a bit with our feet. Its an incremental labor but not a hard one. That keeps most of the weeds down around the trees, there’s the odd thing to pull but as you can see we’re not very anal about the weeds. We’ve planted wild grasses around too, which helps, as its such low maintenance.
JL: The plantings underneath the fruit tree canopies, do you change that, is it a seasonal thing?
GB: Its pretty constant now. We used to do some kale and salad greens, but we’ve got quite a bit of room in the vege garden now and don’t need the extra space. Every now and then we get ambitious and we do stuff like chicory and Italian greens, but the biggest crop is fennel. My wife and I are huge fennel freaks.
JL: Do you do the straight fennel or the bronze fennel?
GB: We’ve done bronze, but we mainly do a slow bolting Italian variety. The slow bolt means you have longer for the bulbs to grow, and then they all go at once and you have loads of fennel. So we harvest everything at once, clear it all out except for one or two plants that we leave to go to seed. Then the girls just go around and bang the seeds against the trees, they fall out and self seed. That’s all we do; we don’t plant anything.
JL: So you don’t plant seedlings?
GB: No everything outside the vegetable garden is self-seeding. We just bang it; we’re lazy. And then in Spring the compost and the mulch goes over it, and it does its own thing. We’ve got some alpine strawberries which is the same. When we are weeding we pull them out and chuck them in the compost, then they’ll just start rooting and sprouting in there. There’s always little patches of alpine strawberries sprouting up. They were here when I was a kid, and the ones that are growing now are probably from the same lot.
JL: All the fruit that isn’t your typical stuff, where did you source all your materials from?
GB: I started off on Trademe and then I got a little bit more obsessive and I found out there’s a few people, a few crazy people that are as obsessive as I am. I got Platonia, which is a lush Japanese vine with these freaky little fruit that taste a bit like rice pudding. Its quite nice and its got all sorts of anti-inflammatory properties. That, and a few of the varieties of guava, some standard tropical and cherry ones that you can get from the nursery, but theres a few other South American varieties, plus a giant green Thai one, that I got from some of these collectors.
Above: Vines and espaliered fruit trees along the fence line on one side of the back garden. "A crazy experiment!" Gidon says. "I've never heard of anyone espaliering pomegranate because they are normally considered a hardcore bush, but I discovered that you could bend the shit out of the branches without them breaking. Eventually it will be a hedge, in a normal years yield we get about 20 pomegranate on each plant."
Above: "We usually invite our friends and all of our friends kids - harvesting olives is like slave labour. We put sheets down and then I get up a ladder and shake the tree like a monkey. Then you have to separate the blacks from the greens, get a rock and crush them - we do crushed green olives. Then the curing process, sorting them and putting them in jars. The blacks in brine to pull out the moisture, and the greens in a salt brine and that sucks out the bitterness. Then in water and then a marinade. The last time we did it we got 10 big jars of fucking amazing green olives."
Above: Gidon's home studio featuring a beautiful old flowering Hoya that was Gidon's grandmothers. Below: Gidon's studio leads out to the garden.
We were interested to compile this list of all the fruit varieties Gidon grows in his 'urban orchard';
Orange, Feijoa, Apple, Plum, Olive, Mountain Pawpaw, Pomegranate, Guava, Pitango, Quince, Mulberry, Pomelo, Platonia, Grapefruit, Almond, Fig, Cherimoya, Japanese Raisin, Cherry, Golden Queen, Peacherine, Chinese Nashi Pear, Nectarine, Desert Apricot, Peach, Etrog, Japanese Persimmon, Cinnamon, Boysenberries, Raspberries, Alpine Strawberries, Banana, Sugar Cane.
Featured in this story...
Look out for Part II of this journal feature where Jared and Gidon discuss the front section of his garden, which is planted entirely in natives.
Photographs by Neeve Woodward.