DRIVE OUT TO THE EDGE OF BELLINGEN, cross the river and when you reach the roundabout take Northbank Road, then go on up the hill a little further until you see the sign beside the roadside stall from which the gardeners sell vegetables. Here, behind the tall hedge that hides it, is Northbank Community Garden. And what a place it is.
Occupying part of a five hectare block made available by a rural landholder, the organically managed community garden is an innovative place hosting fruit and vegetables and a flock of 15 or so chooks. More than that, though, it' a community enterprise in which participants learn about the full food cycle, from planting and growing, through to harvesting and marketing.
Marketing might sound an unusual activity for a community garden, however selling produce to Bellingen cafes and restaurants reflects the enterprise's role as a place of learning and innovation.
Walk into the garden and you encounter an area of shrubs and vegetable beds. The bight red seedheads of amaranthus, bearer of thousands upon thousands of tiny black seeds that can be popped in a dry pan like corn, rise above the greenery.
Look beyond the seed heads and you see the simple rotunda the gardeners have built to provide themselves with shelter. Shelter is surely needed here, in this region with its hot subtropical sun and its sometimes torrential rains. Walk over to it and you stop to gaze out over a distant landscape, and you realise that the garden really is well situated with its sweeping view over surrounding hill and hollow.
Unless you have been told, you might not know that you stand in the part of the community garden used for community workshops and that serves as a forage garden from which the public can take food.
But another surprise awaits.
Walk on into the garden a bit further and you come to a larger area that has been mass-planted to larger numbers of particular food crops, all planted in rows. Why rows? To make harvesting easier and less time consuming, for this is the market garden part of Northbank Community Garden. Here, produce is grown not only for the subsistence of the gardeners but for sale to Bellingen's cafes and restaurants. Here you find sweet potato, corn and sunflower and soil only recently mounded and awaiting the sowing of a new crop.
The Northbank gardeners are a young crew, men and women and families with young children. Those children are perfectly at home is what amounts to the best type of playground a child could want — it's unstructured and has no play equipment, far from the common type of playground designed by professional adults who think they know what children want. The children dart here and there through the shrubbery, appearing and disappearing as only children who know a place can do.
Gardening in this climate might be hard and often sweaty work, but a few minutes with the gardeners gives the impression that here is a cohesive and relaxed bunch who are following their own particular dream.
But this is no dreamers garden, it is a real and practical example of how a good idea, plus a little ingenuity and hard but thoughtful work can bring into creation something that not only feeds people but provides useful worklife skills at the same time it brings into existence from the fertile earth something of striking and edible beauty. This is to work with nature, not against it.