Meet this beautiful family living off the land and loving it!
Moving to the country and living off the land might seem an impossible wish for many of us, but the Kern family are making it happen, one tiny seed at a time. Esther and Robert Kern share their story with us.
Tucked in the south headland of Kaipara Harbour you’ll find a little block of land filled with bright, beautiful flowers, vege gardens, chickens, three sheep and a family pursuing their dream of living off the land. Esther, her husband Robert, and their three children; Emilio (6), Federico (5) and Luna (3), live on their two-hectare property on the land where Esther grew up. “My grandfather bought the farm more than 80 years ago. They raised their family on it, my parents raised us on it, now we’re raising our family here – it’s got a lot of history!”
Just over six years ago, the Kerns were living in Ahuroa Valley when the opportunity came up to move back to the family land. “It felt like the right time. We wanted our kids to grow up near my family who were already on the land and we wanted to move towards a more sustainable way of life,” explains Esther. Esther’s parents live on the main part of the farm, and her brother and one of her sisters also live on their own sections of the land with their families.
The call to a slower pace of life and going back to basics was a huge part of the couple's decision to put down roots in this special land. “We loved the idea of being able to feed our family from our garden, of our kids knowing where their food comes from and being a part of the process of growing it,” says Esther.
Raising their three children here and seeing the impact this lifestyle is having on them motivates the couple to keep going. “The kids talk to their friends about how they grow their own food and they share their knowledge with their classmates. They’re always bringing home seeds they’ve saved; our bench is lined with little containers filled with them,” shares Esther. “They’re so proud of what they grow and it’s just natural for them, this way of life.” The health side of things is also a big one for the Kerns. Knowing that the food they’re providing for their family is seasonal, nutrient-rich and free from any sprays is a big win. Esther also credits her kids’ willingness to eat a wide variety of fruit and veges to them growing the food themselves.
While the kids love getting into the garden with Esther and Robert, there are still the day-to-day challenges that all parents with young children face. “They can be the greatest help or the greatest hindrance, One might be helpful one day while the other two might be fighting – some days it works and some it doesn’t. I’m learning to go with the flow and not put too much pressure on getting things done when the kids are with me. I try to be really productive with my time when they’re at school and kindy, and Robert and I will often get out into the garden in the evenings after the kids are in bed,” shares Esther.
Esther's passion for gardening started when she was a child. Her parents and both sets of grandparents were keen gardeners so a lot of her knowledge was imparted by them. She later took horticulture in high school and always knew gardening would be a part of her life. The couple recognise that they’re privileged to have the land they live on and also their knowledge base, but don’t think these factors are essential for others wanting to start on the journey of growing their own food or flower gardens. “We’re lucky to live in a time where knowledge is so accessible, the internet and even social media has a wealth of information on gardening. I follow some gorgeous families that inspire me and teach me so much. And you don’t need a huge area to plant in, you can just start with a few pots. It doesn’t need to be expensive or all-consuming,” she explains. “I’m a stay-at-home mum and our kids are a bit older now, so I have a bigger capacity for the garden than I used to, but even when they were babies they’d be out there with me on their playmats while I pottered away in the garden.”
The Kerns are something of a dream team when it comes to the gardens. Robert's passion is growing veges, Esther’s is growing flowers – lots of them! “When we first moved to the land there were no established gardens so we had to start from scratch. It was overwhelming but also exciting to have all this space to grow things,” recalls Esther.
The couple follow the popular ‘no dig’ method of gardening which involves laying sheets of cardboard down on the ground and then layering compost on top to plant into. “Robert spent hours and hours reading and watching YouTube videos – teaching himself how to do the gardens. We’ve come a long way but you never really arrive with gardening. We’re always learning something new, trying new varieties of things and seeing how they turn out. Our gardens are ever evolving.”
Working the land means going with the seasons, and much of the Kerns’ life is dictated by these ebbs and flows. “This time of year, in the cooler months, everything slows down, then spring is super busy sowing all the seeds and prepping the ground. In summertime everything is growing and fruiting like mad and we’re just trying to keep up with it all! Being outdoors so much means we’re more in tune with the seasons and with nature,” says Esther.
The garden has become Esther’s sanctuary, her peaceful place. “I find being out there so grounding and therapeutic, especially when things feel full-on in other areas of my life. When I look at something we’ve grown, at the stunning bunch of dahlias on our table, I know that I was a part of making this happen. I set it into nature and here I am with this creation that I’ve helped to get here – it’s incredible,” she says.
The Kerns have big plans for their land, including extending their vege garden to be able to grow enough to feed them year round. Crops like potatoes and onions can be harvested and stored away, while many varieties of fruit and veges can be preserved and eaten in the off-season months, explains Esther.
They also recently fixed up an old glass house to grow seedlings in. Almost everything they grow is from seeds, whether saved from their own plants, from a seed swap, or bought home by little hands.
The flower garden is also top priority. “I’d plant the whole section with flowers if I could, purely for the joy they bring to our family! We’ve got our eyes on one of our paddocks to plant out completely with wild flowers. For us the reward is a hundredfold what we put in. It’s not just about the finished product, but getting your hands in the dirt is so healing and freeing; it’s good for your soul, good for your body, good for your whole being.”
ESTHER'S TIPS FOR STARTING YOUR OWN GARDEN:
❁ Grow what you want to eat/see bloom
There’s no point growing things you don't like! If you like spinach, tomatoes and cucumbers, grow spinach, tomatoes and cucumbers. Don't bother growing celery if you don't love eating celery.
❁ Grow in your knowledge
Look for gardeners to follow on Instagram or Facebook. Research different ways of gardening. Get books out of the library, watch YouTube videos, talk to your gardening neighbours. Most people are more than willing to share what they have learnt on their gardening journey. Join Facebook groups that align with your interests. The NZ Vege and Edible Gardening group and the NZ Flower Gardeners group are great places to get helpful advice and be inspired.
❁ Prep a space to grow
Whether you only have room for a potted garden or have unlimited space, make it start working for you. You may want to develop a food forest or use raised beds or plant in pots – the options are endless. You can buy compost or you can make your own for free, but plants love a nice healthy growing medium to give them the best chance. (@thecoastalgoodlife and @charles_dowding have amazing posts and videos showing you how you can make your own compost.)
❁ Source your plants
You can get seedlings from your local garden centre, buy your own seeds (we have bought from Kings Seeds, Egmont Seeds, Koanga Institute, Owairaka Seeds, Emerden and Keith Hammett), or you might be able to forage for plants or ask a friend to save some seeds from their garden. The beauty with starting from seed is that you have a much wider selection of varieties to choose from.
❁ Start small
Don't overwhelm yourself by taking on too much, too early. Start small and let it grow from there.
❁ Tend to your garden little and often
We find it much easier to spend regular amounts of time in the garden, as otherwise it can get away on us a bit and then it can be quite overwhelming and hard to manage.
❁ Enjoy the journey
Learn from your mistakes, celebrate your successes and find joy in the gardening process.
❁ Just go for it
Prep a spot, plant a plant, water and feed it (with healthy soil and if it's lucky, fertiliser of some sort) and it will reward you with food/flowers!
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 54 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW