THE BLOSSOMS on the ornamental cherry trees were a month early according to the locals. They decorated the otherwise bare branches, their snowy whiteness in sharp contrast to the clear blue of the early autumn sky.
Lawson is a town whose small, main street strip of shops is being rebuilt so that what was the back of the buildings becomes the front. Others fronting the highway, old timber buildings, are boarded up, their days of buying and selling now ended.
The cause of this transformation is the widening of the Great Western Highway where it passes through town. The changes are seen as soon as you walk off the footpath along the highway, when you enter an area rebuilt. There, the pale rosy colour of new brick buildings and the white of those cherry blossoms are what catches the eye.
Sufficiently caffeinated at the local cafe-come-art gallery, the three of us walked over to the community centre where we were to meet local people interested in staring a community food garden.
We — Fiona Cambell, Rob Alsop and myself — had left the hills of Fairlight and driven up to the Blue Mountains after learning that track work of the Western Line would make a rail journey of a little over an hour each way into one spanning a full four hours and more. We had decided to do that a little differently too, foresaking the freeway for the old highway where it winds its way across the plains and through the towns west of Sydney. It was the type of journey made by travelers of a generation ago, one now forsaken for the long straight line of the freeway.
Our presence in the Blue Mountains that day was for the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network, and the day started with a look at a number of sites for the proposed community garden. One of these was a portion of a disused golf course, the club having gone broke some years ago. Another was a steeper, north east facing slope adjacent to a rehabilitation centre from which a sweeping view over the grey-green of the forested ridges of the lower Blue Mountains led to the flatness of the Cumberland Plain far below. There, in the far distance, the spires of the city rose to mark the eastern horizon.
It was as Rob said — after trying to get a community garden started in Manly and finding a marked lack of potential sites, the plentiful supply and the size of the places potentially available around Lawson was enough to make us envious.
An enthusiastic gathering
There were about 35 that gathered in one of those newer brick buildings, the Mid-Mountains Neighbourhood Centre, as the community garden group reported to members on progress in assessing potential sites for the garden and on related matters.
Participants were mostly from the Lawson area, however there were a few from the Katoomba area higher up the mountains to the west. One was a woman from Blue Mountains Council, in the job for less than a week; others were from the Blue Mountains permaculture association, another the president of the gardening society. And there were a couple familiar faces — David who I had met while making a presentation on food issues to the annual general meeting of the Blue Mountains Food Cooperative; another, from the permaculture network, met when launching Rosemary Morrow’s book a few years ago among the heritage apple orchard at Katoomba Community Garden.
The Neighbourhood Centre, with its framed ceramic artwork decorating the exterior walls, envelops a small courtyard occupied by trees that must cast a welcoming shade in the heat of summer. There, inside the building and sipping coffee or tea from blue plastic cups bearing the logo of the city council, we started by taking the group through a Powerpoint presentation to set the scene about the role and potential of community gardens. This was for the most part a slide show of photographs of community gardens chosen to illustrate the points we raised.
A discussion followed in which most of the participants engaged. What was the value of becoming an incorporated association? What about public liability insurance? How do we work successfully with other people? What about disagreement and decision making? How do we start? How do we structure the garden? What role would council have in the garden? These were all questions familiar from other consultations with community garden start-ups and they were just a few that were raised.
The mood that afternoon was positive and optimistic and it soon became apparent that there was a considerable range of skills available in the group such that would cover most of the needs of a getting a new community garden started. These included people with experience in production agriculture as well as others experienced in home gardening. Training new gardeners would be no problem — there were skills a-plenty.
Starting is something that appears likely, given the reported change in personnel following the most recent local government elections. The challenge now is finding land and defining the needs of the gardeners, a process they are to set out on.
The event ended with the group planning their next moves… an ambitious bag of activity but, given the intent and capability of those present, something that will be accomplished.
Sydney-bound, we took the freeway and our conversation most of the way back consisted of a debrief on the day. What could we have done better? Well, we need a better Powerpoint for consultations such as these. How do we do that and what need we say in the presentations? Well, we really need a number of Powerpoints, for use with groups at different stages of development. Let’s start on making these shortly, the three of us, we decided. What could we have explained more clearly? What points should we focus on?
All questions for serious pondering now that the Sydney team of the national community gardens network is receiving more frequent requests to consult and to make presentations and engage groups in purposeful dialogue.
An aside: the woman from council let the meeting know that council is planning to assist people to trade their goods at the local Magpie Markets in what sounds to be something akin to the microenterprise model. Something new and of value to people and the local economy, I suggested.
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Story: Russ Grayson, October 2009