Avis Leeson was 77 when she began teaching children how to garden. Seven years later she is showing no signs of slowing down. Annette Taylor reports.
Tomorrow, the 83-year-old tells me, she will be at Gordonton School putting in black boy peaches and peacherines with the students.
Last week she visited the school for the first time, putting in a vegetable garden and a worm farm.
In 2009 Avis was named Waikato/Bay of Plenty gardener of the year for her volunteer work encouraging children to grow their own vegetables. When I visited her for a story about that for the Waikato Times she was in a neck brace and nursing broken bones after a fall.
Over tea and homemade cake she told me two years prior she thought she was going to die.
“I’d scraped my leg on a nail, I thought it wasn’t serious but a couple of days later blood poisoning set in.”
Medical treatment put her right but she felt the need to give something back and hit upon teaching gardening to children. Once she was up and about, she rang the headmaster at her old school, Morrinsville Primary, and outlined what she wanted to do.
He asked if she could start the next day. She now has 72 schools on her list and will add more – Horsham Downs is in her sights.
“I’m busy every day and every night. I get behind in my housework and my own garden but it doesn’t matter because the children are so precious.”
At the Morrinsville school her young charges knew nothing about gardening.
“I had some carrot seed in my hand and I asked if anyone knew what it was. There were blank expressions all around. Not one of them had seen a seed before.
“I then asked where do carrots come from and everyone’s hand went up – from the supermarket. How do they get the supermarket I asked, and they shouted ‘the big green truck.’ I thought, well, here’s a challenge.”
She got compost from a local mushroom farm and, with the children, built up that first garden. They grew lettuces, radishes, tomatoes, parsley, spring onions – “all the things you need for salads.”
It was her dream that the children would start gardens of their own at their homes and by Christmas every single one had done this, involving entire families.
In the current economic climate it makes sense to grow your own vegetables, and there’s the added bonus of knowing they are fresh and spray free, she says. “Food is so expensive and parents go to great lengths to get their kids to eat veges – I’ve never met a child who wouldn’t eat the veges they’ve grown themselves.”
At Gordonton, Avis showed the students how to remove the young plants from the punnets and how to plant them properly. “They have a lovely selection: brussel sprouts, cauliflower, bok choy, cauliflower, onions, parsley, some celery as well.”
She is on the road most days, and visits schools from Matamata to Karapiro, as well as schools in Hamilton including Bankwood, Woodstock, Forest Lake and Aberdeen. Puketaha and Whitikahu Schools are also on the list.
Country children today are no better off than their city cousins when it comes to gardening knowledge, she says. However, there is a difference in their attitude to life.
“Those small people out at Gordonton are alive. If you said, ‘see who can go the highest up that tree’ they’d be up there like a flash. Say that to the same age group in town and they’d go ‘I’m not doing that, I might fall.’ So country kids have still got something over the ones in town.”
Avis herself went to a country school near Te Aroha, where she was one of 18 students. ”I’m a bit of an antique. I grew up during the war, and every school had its school garden; we had to learn to garden because we needed gardens to feed us.”
She does most of the work herself, although a Wintec horticulture student has just put his hand up to help. Teachers also are very enthusiastic but have other responsibilities.
She pays her own petrol and other expenses but is amazed at the items that are donated – plants, trees, timber and soil. “It’s amazing, what I’ve been given and I’m a dab hand at recycling.”
Avis has raised four children, worked on a farm and gardened – at one time her garden was three acres, with hundreds of roses. She never had time to read a novel but managed to plant at least 2000 trees.
“I want to drop dead in a pumpkin patch, not sitting in a rocking chair,” she says. But she does admit to owning a rocking chair, which is wonderful to sit in at the end of a long day.
Now she’s passing on her love and skill to younger generations.
“Seven, eight, nine-year-olds, any age is right. I love the ones that started last week, the new entrants. They’re keen as mustard. To begin with they called me gran, or nana. Now they just call me Avis.”
This is what makes it worthwhile. “Children are very sincere and genuine. When they really love something, they let you know. It’s almost magic, the look in their eyes.”